Bicycles come to a dead stop at the most inopportune times. This lack of forward progress invariably happens when you are pedaling up a steep incline and your leg strength cannot overcome the physical challenge presented by the smaller cogs on your cassette.
Changing your gear to an easier one should be the answer, right? But does it have to be done while you are moving, or can you just click down while you are stationary?
Bicycle gear selectors, or derailleurs, cannot change gears if the rear wheel of the bike is not moving in a forward direction. The mechanism relies on the shifting of the chain over the moving teeth of the cogs to achieve this. To avoid damage, do not attempt to operate the gears while stationary.
While that answer is all very well, there are going to be occasions when you are not able to achieve forward motion, so we’re going to let you know why you should never attempt to change while standing still, and then we will teach you a trick that will effectively allow you to change your gears while stationary.
What Happens When you Try to Change Gears While Stationary?
The real answer is – Not much. If you are just clicking up and down the range of your gears using your handlebar-mounted gear selector, your derailleurs, (either the rear derailleur or the front mech), will just move to the left and the right of your cassette until the tension of the chain prevents them from moving any further. You will find that if your rear wheel is not moving in a forward direction, your bike will not change gears.
It is only when you try to get going again and load the drivetrain that the consequences of shifting the derailleur to another gear while at a standstill may become apparent to you as a less than desirable scenario.
If you forcefully push down on the pedals you will stand a good chance of jamming or dropping your chain, or, in the worst case, damaging your cogs and breaking your chain. A bicycle chain is incredibly strong while accepting stress (the power of your pedal stroke) in a straight line, but they are not designed to deal with excessive “sideways” pressure.
However, changing while at a standstill may sometimes be unavoidable. Especially if you are just starting out on this biking adventure and you haven’t perfected the art of changing gears smoothly just yet. We will have a look a little later at how this can be done safely.
But for now, let’s learn how to shift correctly.
How to Change Gears Smoothly & Easily on a Bike
As a beginner cyclist, just looking at the cassette, derailleur mechanism, chain, and selectors may give you pause for thought as to how such a complicated system will even work.
The first thing to say is that bikes have gears so that you can travel easily and comfortably no matter what the terrain under your tires looks like and no matter how steep the incline you are faced with is. In short, you will want to use your gears to make your ride more enjoyable, so it is worthwhile learning how, and when, to use them.
Most bicycles that are fitted with both front and rear derailleurs have the selector for the front derailleur positioned on the left side of your handlebars with the shifter for the rear derailleur located on the right-hand side. Given that, here are a few tips and steps to achieve smooth and efficient gear changes.
- Use the left side selector to shift the chain on your chainring (the large cogs attached to your pedals).
- To change gear on the rear cassette use the shifter on the right. You will find that you use the rear derailleur to change gears more often than the front mech as the changes are not as steep.
- If you find yourself pedaling too quickly, and there is not sufficient resistance to your pedal stroke, you will want to change up to a harder gear. If you look down at the cassette, you will find the derailleur has shifted you onto a smaller cog. In other words, you will want to shift into a “harder” gear when going downhill or have the wind at your back – every biker’s prayer!
- Conversely, if you are pedaling too slowly or it is becoming increasingly difficult to pedal, then shift to an “easier” gear – one of the larger cogs on the rear cassette, when going uphill (to make the incline less difficult) or when you are facing a headwind – every riders nightmare.
- Try to pedal lightly without too much force through the pedals when you are changing gear. This will ensure the longevity of your components and will result in a smoother change without the creaks and pops of tortured metal that you will hear from a forceful change.
- It does not matter whether you are a mountain biker or a roadie, it is always better to practice at first on a fairly flat section of pavement. This will mean that while you are still learning how to change gears, each shift is achieved more smoothly and without excess stress on the chain and other components. While you are still learning, try to use only the rear cassette and the smaller of the two, or three, chainrings up front.
- Avoid cross-chaining at all costs. Cross-chaining happens when the chain is shifted onto the small cog up front and the small cog on the rear cassette. The same holds true when positioning the chain on the large chainring and the large cassette cog.
Final Thoughts and a Handy “Cheat”
If you find yourself at a dead stop and in the wrong gear, all you need to do is shift the selector a few clicks, lift the rear wheel and turn the crank forward a full turn. Do this until you find the correct gear.
This is a really useful skill if you find yourself in the wrong gear at the traffic lights or when you have come to a standstill on a steep incline.
Every cyclist will find themselves in the wrong cog at some point in their cycling career. Most probably many times. Just remember not to panic! Attempt to change up to an easier cog if the rear wheel isn’t turning. Your components and your bank balance will thank you.